Fresh voices in Italian independent cinema constantly struggle against an overwhelming tide of bigger-budgeted, better-distributed mediocrities, so it’s encouraging to see a film like “Pure Hearts” find a major festival berth, where the attention it receives might just filter through back home. Roberto De Paolis’ debut is a story of two marginalized young people afraid of what’s inside themselves: for Agnese, it’s the fear of sin, for Stefano, it’s the fear of powerlessness. Their unlikely meeting on the periphery of Rome starts a process of self-questioning that leads to both liberation and pain. De Paolis’ nonjudgmental depiction of their two worlds has a raw urgency that should find receptive audiences at festivals worldwide.
Strict but loving single mom Marta (Barbora Bobulova) isn’t the stereotypical fundamentalist parent, and Agnese (Selene Caramazza), 17, has a relatively normal life within the controlled limits of her church-based school and community. Yet Marta doesn’t know how to shift from being the parent of a child to the mother of a teen, and she’s confiscated Agnese’s cellphone over worries that her daughter is sending inappropriate messages. When first seen, Agnese has just stolen a phone from a shopping center and is frantically fleeing security guard Stefano (Simone Liberati). Sensing her terror after he catches up, he lets her go.
Stefano, 25, is starting a new job anyway, guarding a parking lot next to a Roma camp. It’s not a desirable gig — a great shot of the young man seated on a broken-down chair in the middle of the lot, defiantly facing some men in the camp across the way, says everything we need to know about the solitude and boredom of the job, together with the antagonism between him and the people on the other side of the fence.
Meanwhile, Agnese confesses her transgressions to Father Luca (Stefano Fresi), who tells the troubled teen that the limits her mother sets offer protection. “You live well with limits,” the priest advises, with a tone of genuine affection and a desire to help. That’s one of many standout details about “Pure Hearts” — De Paolis presents a picture of the ultra-religious Catholic community not as crazy fanatics but as faithful followers of rules designed to help them negotiate life’s haphazard roads.
Agnese tags along with mom on one of her charity runs at the Roma camp, and there sees Stefano again. The two speak — they’re attracted to each other — and they communicate via her stolen phone. Both are going through a period of limbo: Agnese is negotiating her burgeoning adulthood within the straightjacketing confines of religion while Stefano struggles with other kinds of instability. His parents (Antonella Attili, Federico Pacifici) are being evicted from their home, and his friends, especially Lele (Edoardo Pesce), are seriously bad influences. Agnese and Stefano turn to each other in hope of salvation, but there are no easy paths.
Thankfully, De Paolis doesn’t offer simple answers, and the film’s open ending hits just the right note of uncertainty. Both main characters are equally well drawn, and their unlikely pairing draws out aspects of themselves they barely connected with before. For Agnese, taught to fear the world, her growth into womanhood offers the frightening possibility of pushing away the crutch of Church and faith. For Stefano, seeing his parents in a trailer after their eviction makes him realize there isn’t that much difference between himself and the Roma he instinctively denigrates. Both young people feel their precarious sense of stability slipping away; clinging to each other may be their only chance of survival.
De Paolis spent a long time working with his actors, encouraging improvisation while shooting to ensure spontaneity and authenticity. The experiment works perfectly for the subject matter, drawing out the characters’ fragility, plus it’s nice to see Bobulova (“The Dinner”) in a role worthy of her talents. Like the actors, DP Claudio Cofrancesco was expected to improvise his camerawork on set, resulting in a nimble indie aesthetic — inquisitive yet respectful, and never undisciplined.